Friday, March 9, 2007

Deepak on The God Delusion - Part III

A couple of years ago my wife and I (we were only at the dating part of our relationship at the time) were at a little soup and sandwich place near where I worked. This is one of those specialty places, not at all like Tim Horton's (My condolences to those that have never experienced Tim's coffee. Starbucks sucks.). I went to the washroom and while I was there my wife was listening to a conversation at the next table over. After I got back my wife was looking at me expectantly for what I could tell was no reason whatsoever. Then I started listening to the conversation going on behind me, and that's when my wife's amusement became apparent. These two elderly ladies were discussing Quantum Mechanics and 'planes of existence' in the same spiritualistic breath. Having had a number of university courses in Quantum Mechanics and even a graduate course in Relativistic Quantum Mechanics, this was to me what I imagine my bull-cat Omar feels when I rub his fur backwards. Why is it that places like this always seem to attract weirdoes like flypaper?

Why did I relate this anecdote? You'll see that it has a direct bearing on Deepak Chopra's third 'attack' on Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion:

The universe is a complex machine whose workings are steadily being demystified by science. Any other way of viewing the world is superstitious and reactionary.

Chopra writes: "What is so strange about this argument is that Dawkins himself is totally reactionary. His defense of a material universe revealing its secrets ignores the total overthrow of materialism in modern physics. There is no world of solid objects; space-time itself depends upon shaping forces beyond both space and time." Did I miss the memo? When has materialism been overthrown at all, even in modern Physics? Another commenter noticed this as well. I have a suspicion of what he means: Quantum Mechanics.

Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner for his work in Quantum Electrodynamics, once said: "I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics." Why is that? Quantum rules apply only on very small dimensions. I am speaking about dimensions so small that we can't even imagine them, let alone experience quantum effects. We evolved in a world dominated by Classical Mechanics. When you throw a ball in a gravitational field you know from experience how to adjust the catching mitt in order to intercept its path. We don't need to know the mathematics behind the ball's motion; we just need to catch it. (Before it hits our head, right, Dale?) This has obvious implications for individual survival.

But in the quantum realm things are counter-intuitive. We do not have a grasp of quantum rules simply because our survival has never depended upon this understanding. We don't need to know about wave-particle duality of electrons unless you are applying for funding in Physics. Our brains evolved to understand what mattered for survival and an intuitive understanding of Classical Mechanics was much more important in this respect than Quantum Mechanics. We don't need to understand Quantum Mechanics to make incredibly precise and accurate predictions of experimental outcomes, which makes it one of the most successful Theories of all time. For an entertaining discussion of what would happen if, for instance the Planck's, gravitational or speed of light constants were altered to make quantum weirdness a part of our normal every day experience, see if you can find of copy of George Gamow's Mr. Tomkins in Wonderland. This book is unfortunately out of print, but for those interested see if you can find it on eBay.

Chopra claims materialism is a superstition and has glaring problems: "…arch materialism is just as superstitious as religion. Someone like Dawkins still believes there are solid objects randomly colliding to haphazardly form more and more complex objects, until over the course of billions of years the universe produced human DNA with its billions of genetic bits." Just out of curiosity, how can anything based on evidence (as materialism requires) be superstitious? That's just a non sequitor, but from Chopra it isn't surprising. Why does anyone buy his books?

"What's wrong with this argument is that if you trace DNA down to its individual atoms, each is more than 99.9999% empty space. If you take an individual electron, it has no fixed position in either time or space. Rather, ghostly vibrations wink in and out of the universe thousands of times per second, and what lies beyond the boundary of the five senses holds enormous mysteries." What I find enormously hilarious about this is that he is using materialistic positions to fight a strawman of materialism. Dawkins is fully aware and embraces Quantum Mechanics. It just has little bearing on his field of study. Chemistry is not about billiard balls bouncing off each other till they form some random molecule. Atoms come together directed by forces of interaction. If it was just random, Chemistry would not be a scientific discipline. It is anything but random. Some of his other points are just inanities. For instance, what does the fact that DNA is almost totally 'empty space' have anything to do with this? Again, DNA does not come together randomly; it is replicated in an ordered manner by proteins specific to the task, which are themselves coded in the DNA. There are many such non-random phenomena. Another good example is protein folding.

"Enough mysteries, in fact, to be consistent with God. I don't mean a personal God or a mythic one or any God with a human face. Set aside all images of God. What we observe once we get over the superstition of materialism (one that Dawkins defends to the last degree) is that random chance is one of the worst ways to explain how the universe evolved. Here are a few reasons why:
--The various constants in nature, such as gravity and the speed of light, are too precisely fitted with each other for this to happen by chance.
--If any one of six constants had been off by less than a millionth of 1 percent, the material universe couldn't exist."
Let's look at the argument that if the universal constants aren't what they are there would be no universe, which is just another form of the Anthropic Principle. Is this true? Nope. I don't know where he read this (maybe the Discovery Institute website), but even large changes in fundamental constants would result in something amazing: the big bang, formation stars and galaxies, etc. Sound familiar? Vic Stenger has dealt with the cosmological argument in several of his books. For instance, one proponent of the Anthropic Principle has stated that if the mass of the neutrino were increased by a very small amount (it turns out to be a factor of 10), the gravitational force would cause the universe to collapse immediately after the Big Bang. But what really happened here? He's not only changed the mass of the neutrino, but changed the mass of the universe as well! There would simply have been fewer neutrinos with this increased mass and you'd still have the universe. Changing fundamental constants in a vacuum like that is simply a numbers game. Indeed, the Anthropic Principle has no empirical basis and is little more than the Argument from Personal Incredulity. Even if the universe was such that our type of life could not exist, that does not mean some other form could not develop. Stephen Hawking (a little name dropping here I admit) believes that there is very little special about our universe at all.
"--Events at opposite ends of the universe are paired with each other, so that a change in the spin of one electron immediately produces a twin effect in another electron. This ability to communicate instantly across millions of light years cannot be explained by materialism. It defies all notions of cause and effect. It defies chance. "This point brings us back to the subject of Quantum Mechanics. What Chopra is (badly) describing is something called quantum entanglement. He obviously doesn't understand that while entangled states appear to violate relativity, no meaningful information is transferred between the particles and thus causality is not violated. Seems it is explained in a materialistic manner to me.

"--Every electron in the universe exists as a wave function that is everywhere at once. When this wave function collapses, we observe a specific isolated electron. Before the wave collapses, however, matter is non-local." This last point (yet again) shows Chopra's miscomprehension. He naively states that matter is everywhere in the universe until measurement causes the wavefunction to collapse. But what the equations actually describe (and this depends on the interpretation of QM, but because I am familiar only with the Copenhagen interpretation I will use that) is that the wavefunction extends out infinitely, not the mass. The square of the wavefunction gives the probability distribution of finding the particle at any given point. These mathematical functions extend over all space, but that does not mean that the matter is non-local. The math just tells us the probability of finding the particle at any point in space. When you attempt to observe it the wavefunction collapses and you detect the particle.

What I find most amusing about this is that Quantum Mechanics wholly materialistic. It is has been verified by experiment many times over with a precision unheard of prior to its discovery. The inability of the human mind to understand it invites people like Chopra (or the two ladies in the café) to try to believe that it is in some way the woo-woo mystical crap and try to make it their own. While I do not suggest that Quantum Mechanics does not describe something deep and fundamental about our universe (indeed it does), there is nothing to suggest that it points to design or intelligence. Chopra seems mistakenly to think that Classical Mechanics is all there is to Science and somehow Quantum Mechanics is outside of this, in the woo-woo realm. Baloney. Yes, Quantum Mechanics changed Physics, but it was born out of materialism not spirituality.

"If the universe is self-aware, it would explain the formation of a self-replicating molecule like DNA far more elegantly than the clumsy, crude mechanism of random chance. As the astronomer Fred Hoyle declared (Hoyle was one of the first to seize on the notion of an expanding universe in the 1950s), the probability that random chance created life is roughly the same as the probability that a hurricane could blow through a junkyard and create a Boeing 707." Here we go again. When did any proponent of abiogenesis or Evolution ever claim that 'random chance' was the start of life? Life began very, very simply. We don't know the details, but it certainly did not resemble anything like a cell. The cell is a modern structure, the result many, many small changes over time. DNA is also a modern replicator. Of course they could not have spontaneously formed. But then, DNA and cells were not the first structures that we would label as Life.

The Strawman Army commeth....

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